Mary Grant (1818?–1878)

by Lucy Frost


‘On the coast of Portugal’, said Mary Grant when asked her native place upon arrival in Hobart aboard the Atwick in January 1838. With her fair complexion, sandy hair, and grey eyes, she bore no obvious signs of Iberian parentage. The British fondness for the fortified wines of sherry and port may explain why her mother was on the Portuguese coast when Mary was born about 1818. British merchants, some in long established businesses and others as opportunistic traders, imported the immensely popular wines of varying qualities and pricing. Whether they were wealthy merchants with substantial warehouses along the wharves of Oporto, or were fly-by-night traders with no permanent base in Portugal, some undoubtedly took English-speaking servants with them, and Mary’s mother might well have been one of these. Perhaps she was on a trading vessel, which might explain why Mary was described in the Hobart Town Gazette as ‘native of the Ocean’ when she first absconded in Van Diemen’s Land. Whatever the circumstances of her birth, an early connection with alcohol would have been very appropriate.

Alcohol was to be a constant throughout her life. The theft in Edinburgh for which she was transported involved the local favourite, whisky.  On 6 March 1837 Mary spent the evening with seven men drinking in a spirit shop on the High Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town. At midnight the owner turned them out, locked the door, and went home, unaware that one of Mary’s drinking companions remained behind, hidden in the taproom chimney. Once the coast was clear, the soot-covered conspirator emerged from his hiding place and opened a window overlooking a high-walled courtyard. Other men climbed the wall, entered the shop, and began filling bottles from the whisky barrel. Mary, with the help of a lamppost, climbed the wall and sat on top, handing bottles from men in the shop to men in the street. This was not a quiet operation, and when a bottle broke, the police quickly appeared. Mary was arrested along with the others, and because she had already been convicted of three thefts in less than two years, she was sentenced on 10 May 1837 to 7 years’ transportation.

Mary, who said she was twenty years old when she reached Van Diemen’s Land, was never a part of the Flash Mob but was almost as defiant as the rebels in that notorious prison sub-culture. With no intention of serving the settlers, Mary Grant was constantly absconding. During her first two years in the colony (1838–39), she faced five charges of leaving her work for various periods of time, and her punishments included extensions of her sentence to transportation totalling another two years. In 1842 she was charged at least seven times, some of the charges never even transferred from the court records to her conduct record. Occasionally there were accusations of petty theft or losing money or having money for which she could not account, but all accusations against her were quite routine until 27 March 1843 when she was charged with ‘insubordination’, code for some serious group disturbance in the Cascades Female Factory. Among the women charged over the episode, Mary was the most severely punished. For assaulting Superintendent John Hutchinson with a knife, her sentence of transportation was extended yet another two years, her hair was cut off, and she was sent to the separate working cells. In October 1845, after nearly eight years in the colony, she was issued a ticket of leave.  On 10 May 1847, ten years after she was originally sentenced to 7 years’ transportation, she was finally issued a certificate of freedom.

Mary Grant was now almost thirty years old. How was she to live? It looks as if she teamed up with a man going under the name of John Wilson. In 1856 when two of Mary’s daughters, Jane (born about 1849) and Mary Ann (born about 1851), were admitted briefly to the Orphan Schools, their father was identified as ‘John Wilson a Prisoner’. A third daughter, Margaret, had been born for some reason inside the Cascades Female Factory on 13 February 1850, but she lived for only three weeks, and died in the Convict Nursery at Dynnyrne. Mary may have given birth to other children before the final confirmed birth of a fourth daughter, Ellen, born in Harrington Street, Hobart, on 11 November 1858. When Ellen was 12, she was admitted to the Girls’ Industrial School under the name of Ellen Wilson, although her father was identified as John Woodason, transported on the Thames, and her surname at birth had been registered as Widdison.

Whatever Mary’s relationship to her de facto husband, she seems to have found some means to support herself and her daughters during the 1860s because she stayed away from goal and other institutions during that decade. The 1870s were another matter. Mary had become a homeless pauper. In 1872, the year after her youngest daughter Ellen went into the Girls’ Industrial School, Mary was back inside the Cascades compound where she had been punished as a convict. On 10 April 1872 she was admitted to the Cascades Invalid Depot where she spent the winter. Discharged on 20 September, she was back again on 3 December for another three months. Discharged on 11 March 1873, she was out of the compound for less than a month before she was charged ‘with being an idle and disorderly person in being found last night not having any visible means of subsistence and not having a good account of herself’. For this charge, essentially of being poor, she was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labor. What sort of ‘hard labor’ was a sickly 55-year-old pauper going to do?

Again she was discharged after serving her time, and again she was arrested, this time in December 1873 for being ‘drunk and incapable’. On the description list of prisoners admitted to the Female House of Correction (another variant iteration of the Cascades Female Factory), Mary Grant per Atwick now gave Scotland as her native place. Under ‘remarks’ was entered perhaps the answer to a question about next of kin: ‘daughter (Jane Wilson) resides in Bathurst St’. On the very day Mary was released from this bout of punishment, she was picked up again and charged with disturbing the peace. This time the remarks identifies her second daughter: ‘daughter (Mary Wilson) resides in Bathurst St’. At least the older sisters, now in their early twenties, seem to have stuck together, and to be keeping right away from trouble. John Wilson/Woodason, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. By 1876, someone finally had the sense to get Mary Grant off the streets and into the New Town Charitable Institution. There she died, on 29 July 1878.

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